Originally published 4/30/2018. Includes minor grammatical edits. Lead image from Pexels.
Many of you have heard that there is only one story, and it keeps being retold in different forms. Is this real, and should we even care?
The side you take in this debate boils down to your definition of a “story”. Of course every combination of letters in the alphabet is different. But the “one story” theory states that every story ever told asks the question, “Who am I?” or “What is man?” or something along those lines. In a way, this is true. Every human wants to find herself, and every society wants to know its place in the world.
But in the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t entirely matter.
Today, we’re talking about the implications of “cliches”, and how many people believe that it’s impossible to have an entirely original story.
Is a story unoriginal if it’s happened before?
I think we can all agree that every story is different, yet some still seem more original than others based on our exposure to the topics/technology discussed. How would we view West Side Story differently if no one had ever heard of Romeo and Juliet? Does Romeo and Juliet’s fame make all stories of forbidden love cliche or unoriginal?
1. New technology
Stories themselves obviously vary over time because certain things exist now which didn’t exist twenty years ago. A story about someone getting sucked into a battle in Pokemon Go must be original then, right?
Well, the “one story” theory isn’t based on what happens in the story; it’s based on what the story is about. What moral does the protagonist learn from fighting Pikachu instead of having him fight for her entertainment? Surely every moral known to man has been used before?
2. Themes vary by society
Name a lesson you learned through watching Zootopia. Now name the theme you learned through reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Sound similar? How similar are themes between superhero movies? Love stories?
This seems to support the “one story” theory by demonstrating that common themes can be used in drastically different stories. But then there’s one question….
What if the morals change?
Three hundred years ago, a very common moral might have been “be a dutiful son/daughter”. Would that fly today? What about societies that place more emphasis on teamwork than individuality? What about xenophobic societies vs. diverse societies? Are the morals of their stories not different at all? Sure, we found similarities between Shakespeare and Harper Lee, but they are both descendants of the same culture, even within 300-400 years of each other. Humans have been telling stories for ~20,000 years, and we can’t just exclude non-English speakers.
3. People should be reminded of lessons.
Final question: does it matter? Should you really care if a story has been told before?
I once watched a Nostalgia Critic review of Lilo & Stitch, and he thought the idea of a hostile alien experiment learning to love was cliche. But he is 10 years older than I am. When I watched Lilo & Stitch as a child, I thought it was the coolest, most original idea ever.
Even though I’ve already learned the lesson taught in Zootopia, that doesn’t mean I think any less of it. In fact, I think more of it, because sometimes people need to be reminded of these lessons. Kids need to learn them for the first time. I need to see the same lesson in a different light so that I don’t lose sight of its true meaning.
Overall, I think the “one story” theory is a great conversational topic.
But otherwise, it’s kind of pointless.